CLASH OF CIVILIZATIONS AND CIVILIZATION DIALOGUE

I wrote this article shortly after September 11, 2001. I decided to post this article now, not because of current ongoing interests as another anniversary of the September 11 tragedy draws near. I am alarmed that interfaith dailog has become a taboo subject today. I never imagined a day will come when 10000 people protested against calls for dialogue in our nation (Malaysia) and then another 50000 would have gathered to protest against dialogue on religion and human rights except for the fact that the organizers failed to get approval from the authorities.

CLASH OF CIVILIZATIONS AND CIVILIZATIONS DIALOGUE

“What bad News!” What else could we say to the newsagent as we grabbed a copy of the newspapers the morning after the September 11 attacks on America? We expected him to share our feelings of revulsion and horror. We were thus stunned when the newsagent grinned, gave the ‘thumbs-up’ signal and cheerfully declared the attacks to be “ Good news.” We were equally disgusted when a friend reported that the counter clerk she met in her bank argued that the Americans deserved what they got.

Perhaps these views would have been understandable if they had been expressed after the USA started bombing Afghanistan, but not a day after the horrific attacks. It seems that ideological commitments have clouded the moral sensibilities of the people we met. That enough Malaysians share such sentiments is evidenced by the vibrant sales of books that openly express admiration for Osama bin Laden, ‘the Lion of Afghanistan Mountains’. How did we end up with such vengeful spirits which are normally the consequences of bitter memories accumulated over a history of conflicts between communities – which thankfully, we have been spared of in the history of our nation? How did we come to lose our innocence despite being a young nation?

Pundits are quick to assure us that recent events should not be seen as the unfolding of a new ‘Clash of Civilizations’ that Samuel Huntington propounded a few years ago. Civilization as man’s highest and noblest achievement should not be tainted by the brutality of war. According to them, one should reject outright the misleading phrase ‘Clash of Civilizations’ however arresting the phrase appears.

Admittedly, civilizations have clashed in the distant historical past when isolated communities were suspicious of one another. But with modern mass communications have we not attained a better understanding and appreciation of one another? Don’t we enjoy cheese, ‘chop suey’ and curry? Don’t we patronize both mamak coffee shops and McDonalds?

The concerns of the pundits are certainly justifiable, although I wonder if in their eagerness to serve politically correct causes they may have failed to grapple sufficiently with Huntington’s book, “The Clash of Civilization and the Remaking of World Order”. Huntington elicits much visceral reactions from our scholars because he envisages future conflicts as occurring along fault lines dividing civilizations in general, and along the ‘bloody borders’ of Islam in particular. He asserts that Islam prosecutes international aggression given its persistent belief in universal mission. To be sure, universal mission per se is not the cause of conflicts – after all, all great religions in principle are universal in their truth claims. But conflicts turn violent if civilizations do not maintain a separation between religious institutions and state institutions.

Huntington’s brutally realistic reading of history suggests that leaders of countries that have widespread economic inequality and an overwhelming surplus of youth – what Huntington refers as, ‘youth bulge’ – will cynically exploit widespread discontent by channeling youth towards aggression against other nations. In particular, international conflicts will arise from a confrontation with the West on one side and an alliance between Islamic and Sino Civilizations on the other. This bare thesis is backed by an impressive array of historical evidence and socio-political analyses.

As if setting out to conquer an imposing mountain, critics have found it necessary to mount their attacks from different angles. Some have pointed out that Huntington failed to recognize other modes of encounter that range from peaceful co-existence to interpenetration of cultures. Other critics argue that conflicts actually result from geo-political interests and that it is only subsequently that religious and civilization sentiments are co-opted to legitimize the conflicts. Huntington’s rhetoric about the ‘Clash of civilizations’ therefore puts the cart before the horse. That is to say, it is geopolitical conflicts that exploit religion rather than civilizational differences that thrust communities into conflict.

Still other critics attempt to stigmatize Huntington as a cold-war ideologue out to identify a new enemy in Islam so as to justify the vast expenditure of the military industrial complex. These critics seem most cogent when they refute Huntington’s anticipation that China will align itself with Islamic nations against the USA on grounds that China historically lacked a sense of universal mission and consequently has no ideology for territorial expansion. Still, past historical circumstances cannot absolutely foreclose the possibility of future conflict.

My impression is that much of the counter-evidence offered by critics is inadequate. It is all too easy to counter an imposing system with piece-meal attacks like relying on vague generalizations about methodology or pointing to sharing of trivial cultural symbols. But disparate sorties of guerilla raids leave the essential framework unchallenged, that is, the thesis that ‘Clash of Civilizations’ have occurred and may recur again. Of Huntington’s critics we may have to say – in Shakespearean terms – “The lady doth protest to much, methinks.”

Critics seem to ignore the more measured recommendations offered by Huntington who writes, “The principal responsibility of Western leaders, consequently is not to attempt to reshape other civilizations in the image of the West, which is beyond their declining power, . . . to recognize that Western intervention in the affairs of other civilizations is probably the single most dangerous source of instability and potential global conflict in a multicivilizational world” (pp. 311-312).

To be sure, critics have issued the warning that Huntington’s thesis is a self-fulfilling prophecy. But Huntington’s rejoinder is that he is merely attempting a ruthlessly realistic description of current tensions between societies and identifying the preconditions leading to global conflict. Surely we must engage in an intellectually honest recognition of potential dangers in order that we may undertake appropriate countermeasures. Take, for example, the recent racial riots in Birmingham, UK. Social analysts concluded that violence erupted when public leaders failed to address the problems of race relations because it was more politically correct and soothing to talk about multi-culturalism.

To his credit, Huntington advocates that the West resists all temptation to carry out a universal mission (which to me seems more of American global capitalism and its ideology of individualism rather than Christianity). I am not sure if I agree with Huntington when he isolates certain qualities of democratic freedom and cast them as uniquely Western, but I can certainly agree with him that civilizations that possesses a sense of universal mission and which fuse religion with politics works towards creating conflict because such a sense of mission results in the imposition of one’s ideology and way of life upon others.

It is evident that conflictive situations result from multiple causes. The subject of ‘Clash of Civilizations’, being both complex and emotive, demands clear headed analysis. In this regard, the rhetoric of Osama bin Laden provides an exemplary case study.

If the still undisclosed evidence linking Osama to the September 11 attacks is conclusive we can only judge him as a wicked maverick. On the other hand, Osama has shrewdly aligned his fight with legitimate grievances felt among the Muslim communities such as the Palestinian struggle against Israel and the perceived Western aggression against Iraq. Osama also reminds Muslims of the defeat and humiliation when Muslims were evicted from Andalusia and when the West proceeded to dismember the Ottoman Empire after World War 1. Such references tap into the deep historical consciousness of Muslims who are suspicious that the USA may be merely waging a new phase of crusades against Islam. In effect, Osama’s rhetoric is exploiting religious sentiments to serve his own political interests.

The Americans have been careful to emphasize that the current war is not so much against Islam but against terrorists who happen to be Muslims. We should also note the voice of moderation coming from leaders of mainstream Islam and other religions. Nevertheless, it is not enough for moderate leaders merely to issue some public denunciations of the killing of innocent victims at the World Trade Centre or the bombing of civilians in Afghanistan. Stopping here would amount to no more than a knee jerk reaction and gives the impression that these leaders make public moral judgments only when their hands are forced.

Our political and religious leaders must be proactive in their response because many people at the grass root level in Malaysian society continue to act on the basis of sentiments rather than sober reason. Recent street demonstrations calling for Jihad and newspaper reports of unprecedented arson attacks of a number of churches only increase anxieties among minority communities.

It is not very encouraging either that leaders across religious and political divide are not talking together to address the current crisis. For example, recent seminars organized to address issues such as the position of Islam in the Federal Constitution and the moral dimensions of the Afghan bombings bring together eloquent speakers who draw large crowds. Unfortunately, judging from each seminar draws a crowd that is essential homogenous in ideological persuasion, it is apparent that the speakers are only preaching to the converted. Speakers from different ideological persuasion are simply not talking to one another. What are missing are public seminars that promote genuine dialogue across the political and religious divides.

It is therefore imperative that religious leaders of all persuasions come together in an act of public solidarity to condemn violence whether it is terrorist attacks or disproportionate bombing by the USA abroad or sacrilegious attacks against places of worship within our nation. They should define the way towards peaceful coexistence among different communities based on common values and mutual respect. Failure by our leaders to undertake such initiatives can only be deemed as an abdication from exercising moral leadership in times of crisis.

But surely, people at the grassroots are vulnerable to dangerous influence because of a failure to develop a culture of honest dialogue and nurture a democracy that extends equal recognition to all citizens regardless of their cultural origins. For this reason there must be fresh and vigorous initiatives for Civilization Dialogue among the different communities in our own country in order that we may identify common grounds for nation building.

The Civilization Dialogue I envisage is one that enables participants to overcome their own prejudices and distorted perceptions of their neighbors. The ensuing mutual understanding and ethical discernment is vital if we are to be freed from the temptation to resort to destructive options to overcome differences.

In the final analysis, the call for Civilization Dialogue rests on the confidence that when people of goodwill converse together they will only come up with fruitful solutions to enable people to live alongside each other as decent neighbors. Conversely, failure to engage in Civilization Dialogue will only result in a ‘Clash of Civilizations’ with all its tragic consequences.

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